Uncovering the stories in our history collections

Really, just ask a librarian! Or an archivist!

Research is an essential part of writing a good memoir or non-fiction book. My second book will explore my O’Neill family history and the indigenous population they unsettled when they “pioneered and settled” the Karangi and Orara area in the 1880s. But where to get accurate information? We’d had a family reunion twenty-odd years ago and there was a booklet put together about the O’Neills but what about the Gumbaynggirr people? I wasn’t getting very far with my desktop research so I contacted the librarians at the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum and Libraries.

What a good choice that was! After clarifying what I was interested in, Debbie Campbell connected me with Coffs Collections, a digitised treasure chest of photos and documents from the Museum’s collection, sent me other documents on file and links to relevant information, and also put me in touch with Richard Widders, the Aboriginal Planner and Liaison Officer, who gave me the contact details of a number of Aboriginal elders and people with local knowledge.

Early Karangi History 1929, Coffs Harbour Regional Museum collection item 10.203, https://coffs.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/65490

I live in Sydney and was very excited to be travelling up the Pacific Highway to pursue these leads. I met with Debbie Campbell at the Museum and she laid out books and articles that contained information about the O’Neills and also took me to the Museum archives where Nerida Little, Digital Cultural Collections Specialist, presented a fascinating little black book on Karangi, with notes on the area written by William Maston in 1929. One of those notes was about my grandfather, “First store built early in 1927 for Alf O’Neill (opp. Orara Rd. turnoff). Later bought by George Kelly.”

Early Karangi History 1929, Coffs Harbour Regional Museum collection item 10.203. Shown on 26 February 2021

I really appreciated the professional knowledge and skills of those I met and their enthusiasm, helpfulness and expertise in uncovering useful information. So, wherever you might be up to with your research, really, just ask a librarian!

A comment from Coffs Collections’ staff

Since we launched the new Coffs Collections service six months ago, we’ve added more than 3,000 items to our repository of 15,000 resources relating to the history of the region. These are the raw materials which we have made available for everyone to explore, to be inspired by, to uncover their heritage in.

When an artist, or a student with an assignment, or an author comes along, and is able to publish their story or develop a new idea after tapping into these resources, we know we have achieved success. We’ve helped to create something bigger from the collections assembled over many many years.


Thanks to Betty O’Neill for writing this post.

Betty O’Neill examines an item in the collection of the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum,      26 February 2021

Woolgoolga Adventure Village – Then & Now

The Museum recently digitised a collection of photographs of Woolgoolga Adventure Village in the 1980s. A tourist attraction aimed at children, it contained miniature houses from fairy tales, a working miniature railway, a lake and a large park.

When we shared the images, we received a reply from someone who remembered that every Woopi kid had their birthday party there at some point. Not only that, but her parents now lived on the site where the Woolgoolga Adventure Village once stood. Here at the Museum it definitely pays to ‘know someone who knows someone’!

The residents of the area kindly gave permission for our staff to visit the site and take photos of what the Village looked like now. Here are some standouts!

Miniature cottage, 1980s

Miniature cottage, 2020

This miniature cottage had a new coat of paint, a brightly decorated front door and a great big tree tucked into its roof!

Model Sepik village, 1980s

Remains of hut, 2020

Anything in the Village made of wood was destroyed by termites. Residents were forced to remove the damaged houses, but cleverly repurposed what remained. The remaining section of a Sepik hut has been repurposed into a chicken coop.

Miniature castle, 1980s

Miniature castle, 2020

The mini castle has been repainted and is still used by the residents’ grandchildren to play in.

Tree stump house, or ‘The Fort’, 1980s

Tree stump house, or ‘The Fort’, 2020

The tree stump house still has its original paintwork, including the bright red front door. Our correspondent said both her and her own children liked to play on this, and almost all of them fell off it at one stage.

It was heartening to see the spirit of preservation shared by the residents living on the site of the former Woolgoolga Adventure Village. Rather than knock the buildings down, they were lovingly refurbished and repurposed.

The site is now privately owned and is not open to the public. We received special permission to visit and photograph the area. You can still enjoy the trip down memory lane by viewing the entire collection of images from then and now for free on Coffs Collections.

I would like to thank the residents who live on the site of the former Woolgoolga Adventure Village for letting me traipse around taking photographs. Thanks also to the original lender of the 1980s images. You have all made our collections and local knowledge richer!

Memories of the T.S. Vendetta

This is a guest post of the memories of Ken Morley, contributed by Marie Davey.

T.S. Vendetta is a Naval training school for young people 14 to 18 years interested in a possible future career in the Navy.  There is no commitment.  The T.S. stands for “Training Ship” and it was started to encourage young people who were interested in Navy affairs.

The Royal Australian Navy decided many years ago, sometime around early 1950s, to further develop what was known as “Sea Scouts” – the equivalent of “Boy Scouts” – into a better organised, navy-backed youth group nurturing an interest in all things nautical and to show young men (and later on young women) that there is an interesting career and a solid future in ultimately joining the RAN.

It was begun pre 1972 and its first leader was Douglas Grange Drysdale who was appointed Lieutenant Commander.

Ex Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy personnel were co-opted to organise, set up and instruct these Naval Cadets as they became known with the RAN providing training, information, uniforms, equipment etc including a few small sailing boats and a once annually ten day posting to a RAN Base in each state.  (In New South Wales it is to the Navy Base HMAS Watson at Sydney South Head).

These ex-Navy personnel took on the responsibility of training the cadets in Navy routine, seamanship, correct military terminology, sportsmanship and training the cadets to assist their shipmates when necessary.  They also learned how to handle sailing boats, power boats, navigation, signalling and other skills.

The whole idea took off so quickly and became so popular that almost every large town and city in every state had its own unit, particularly places on the coast or adjacent to big rivers.

The ex-Naval personnel running and maintaining these units were given rank and uniform as well as training by the RAN.  The head of the unit is made a Lieutenant Commander and his uniform sleeve has two thick and one thin gold stripe on the lower sleeve.  His 2nd in Charge is a Lieutenant and he has two thick stripes.  The 3rd in Charge is a Sub-Lieutenant who has one thick stripe.  Under these there is a Chief Petty Officer who has brass buttons on the lower sleeve and one or two Petty Officers who have crossed anchors on the upper sleeve.

When a Group go on their Annual Posting to a Navy Base, it is customary for one or two Officers, plus one or two Petty Officers to go with the Cadets for the 10 days or so of the posting.

Each unit is named after the Royal Australian Navy Ship  and that is why Coffs Harbour is T.S. VENDETTA named after a destroyer.  Other units around the State are T.S. TOBRUK, T.S. ANZAC, T.S. ARUNTA, T.S. VAMPIRE and T.S. SYDNEY.

Other items no longer required by the RAN were offered to various cadet units in case they had a use for them.

Lieutenant Ken Morley who spent 5 years with the T.S. Vendetta from 1973 was second in command of the unit.  This is the way things were done during his time in the unit.  Whilst it is still organised and provided for by the RAN, regulations are somewhat firmer now especially with regard to provision of unwanted ex-Navy equipment.  There were no female cadets in his time and the male cadets were challenged to take a few risks, which at this time it is no longer encouraged to do.

Lieutenant Ken Morley front row right hand side of picture [Picture Ken Morley] 
Lieutenant Ken Morley personally knew quite a few cadets who then joined the RAN and have gone on to achieve great things saying it was the best thing they have done in their lives.

In the 1970s the Cadet Units were encouraged to obtain boats, which were 27 ft sailing whalers and power-driven 2 cylinder diesel engines, and take them out on the ocean.  Several trips were made to the lighthouse on South Solitary Island.  These were made always under the direction of a Senior Instructor.  All the Instructors were ex-Regular Navy personnel.  It is now considered too dangerous and the cadets are only allowed small canoes used within the harbour and not out at sea.

The Flag Mast at the unit was given to them by the Lighthouse Keepers of the South Solitary Island.  The personnel took the 27ft motor-driven whaler with cadets onboard to pick it up and they towed it back to the unit where it was repaired, painted and installed.  It is still there today.

Flagstaff from South Solitary Island installed at TS Vendetta [Picture Marie Davey 2021]
Lighthouse Keepers cottages and flagstaff; mus07-3585
Opening Day at the South Solitary Island lighthouse, 1880

After his time in Coffs Harbour Lieutenant Ken Morley was transferred by the Bureau of Meteorology to Brisbane Airport and was attached to a cadet unit there for a time.  It was a larger unit and not quite the same relaxed group as was the one in Coffs Harbour.  After this he was transferred to OIC of a new station at Cobar which did not have a cadet unit.  When he returned to Coffs Harbour Doug Drysdale had died and so he didn’t take up the cadets again.

Compiled by Marie Davey, January 2021

Embroidered postcards from World War 1

The Museum collection holds some beautiful objects, and these embroidered postcards are such an example.

Known as ‘French silks’, they were handmade by Frenchwomen during World War 1. Early on, the embroidery would be done at home and then taken to factories where they were glued to cards.

Their imagery were often heroic or romantic, sending messages of patriotism and victory, or love and fidelity.

Their bright colours and delicate designs must have served as a sight for sore eyes for weary soldiers, surrounded by khaki and mud. They may have served as reminders of their own womenfolk waiting for them at home, and the promise of domestic comforts.

See more embroidered postcards at Coffs Collections, and have a safe and happy holidays on behalf of everyone at the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum.

The Brief Life of Alfred Garland

Museums are full of stories. They are told through collection objects, photographs, and documentary records. Some stories tell of innovation and past glories; some relate to hardship and deprivation; and some reflect the humour and warmth of people long gone. With the happier stories, it is easy to lapse into nostalgic visions of a simpler past as a balm for the heartaches and struggles of the present day. In at least one arena, that nostalgia would be misplaced: medicine.

The Museum recently digitised two Undertaker’s Indexes, which are available in full and for free on Coffs Collections. These indexes are lists compiled by members of the Coffs Harbour & District Historical Society from the records of local undertakers. They list the names, dates of death and ages at death of people in the local area. The entries often include biographical details such as names of parents or partner’s name, occupations, cause of death and the attending doctor. They are a fantastic family history resource, and often show how far we’ve come in treating injuries and illness that were fatal in earlier eras.

When processing the photographs of the Undertaker’s Indexes, one young man’s story caught our eye. His name was Alfred Garland, and he died by suicide when he was 25 years old. Two articles were published in the Coffs Harbour Advocate that can give us clues as to what happened to Alfred. The first was published in 1931, and recounts an incident involving Alfred’s admittance to hospital. At the time he was suffering from amnesia, and became violent. The article also mentions that Alfred was known to violently shake his head and had regular seizures that resulted in memory loss. It also notes a possible cause – when Alfred was younger, he was kicked in the head by a horse.

“Memory Regained” The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate (NSW : 1910 – 1954) 19 June 1931: 6. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article171774809>.


“Young Man’s Death.” The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate (NSW : 1910 – 1954) 4 May 1934: 3. <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article171868076>

If this happened to Alfred today, what he suffered from may have been given a name: acquired brain injury. All of Alfred’s symptoms are outlined by the Brain Foundation’s description of ABI. If this had happened today, he would have access to support groups and organisations that advocated for him and funded research into better treatments. He might have had access to medicines to help control his symptoms, or therapies to help him cope with everyday life.

Learning about history can make us feel nostalgic for what we interpret to be happier and simpler times. It is also a reason to reflect and feel grateful for the things we have now that our ancestors did not.

If this article has raised any issues for you, please contact:

Mental Health Line – 1800 011 511

Lifeline – 13 11 14

Mensline – 1300 789 978

Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

For more information on Acquired Brain Injury, please contact:

Brain Injury Australia
PO Box 220, Marrickville NSW 1475
Tel 1800 BRAIN1
Email admin@braininjuryaustralia.org.au


Brain Injury Association of New South Wales
PO Box 698, Epping NSW 1710
Tel (02) 9868 5261
Email mail@biansw.org.au

Yesterday’s news

The closure of several regional newspapers in print, including the Coffs Coast Advocate, may have seemed the end of a way of life available to all Australians since 1803. [1]

However libraries have always been quietly working in the background to ensure that the personal version of our life stories remain public. Libraries took in, kept, and cared for copies of newspapers from their earliest days. From the 1960s onwards libraries also funded the production of space-saving microfilm copies, used to preserve that content for as long as possible.

Michael Pascoe, of W.F. Pascoe Pty Ltd, played a significant role in the  conversion, making sure that the Coffs Coast Advocate was secured right up until its last day in print – 26 June 2020. One day it too will be available for reading in Trove, Australia’s digital repository for our history. [2] But what do we do until then?

Securing the issues of the Coffs Coast Advocate

Newspapers of our area which can be browsed online

Coverage of Coffs’ stories prior to 1907 when the Advocate started to roll off the presses was considered important enough to include in a range of titles: several Clarence River papers [3], The North Coast Times – in the only year which has survived – and the Raleigh Sun 1898 – 1918. The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advertiser, available in Trove from  1910 to 1954 sometimes also fills gaps.

Coffs Harbour was fiendish for alternate views so other papers such as the Bananacoast Opinion, bookended by the Opinion and the Advocate Opinion before 1973 and after 1978, were saved by the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum for future searching. It too is available in Trove. [4]


Yes, Sawtell did have its own title for a while, known as the Sawtell Guardian. Recently the Council arranged for its digitisation – a perfect snapshot of life between 1971 and 1976.


The Coffs Harbour City Library holds a full run of the Woolgoolga Advertiser up to 2017 on microfilm,  and it’s easy to book a reader. Coffs Collections is providing access to its newest journal, the Woopi News. A quick search there will reveal all issues.

Need a shortcut to all of these newspapers? Just go to the Resources link in Coffs Collections and click from there.

Not all newspapers are available online, and that won’t change for several decades, because of the copyright provisions which came into effect in 2007.

Later date ranges are available to view on microfilm at the Coffs Harbour City Library, and there is a Newspaper Index available as a starting point.


  1. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 1803 – 1842; http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title3.
  2. Trove is at http://trove.nla.gov.au.
  3. The Clarence River Advocate, 1898 – 1949, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title490; The Clarence Richmond and Examiner, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title104, 1859; The Clarence and Richmond Examiner, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title64, 1889 – 1915; and The Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser, 1859 – 1889, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-title65.
  4. The Bananacoast Opinion, 19 June 1973 – 25 October 1978 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/28311035.

South Solitary Island Lighthouse Optic Management Plan

South Solitary Island Lighthouse optic, courtesy of Coffs Collections at https://coffs.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/65026. Please observe all copyright conditions as shown in Coffs Collections.

The South Solitary Island Lighthouse Optic (SSILO) is the largest and one of the most significant items in the collection of Coffs Harbour Regional Museum. In early 2020, Coffs Harbour City Council commissioned a Management Plan to inform how best to preserve, protect and promote the SSILO into the future. Undertaken by International Conservation Services and Story Inc., the Management Plan provided an opportunity to dive deeply into the fascinating history and exciting future of this most special object. This blogpost shares some of the information that came to light.

The South Solitary Island lighthouse was a critical factor in the early development of our region in both economic and social terms, allowing the expansion of trade, industry and employment opportunities that would have otherwise been restricted by the treacherous maritime environment. The need for a lighthouse at South Solitary Island was raised as early as 1856; actual construction commenced in July 1878 and took 20 months. This latter part of the 19th century was a peak period of lighthouse construction and South Solitary Island was an important link in the highway of coastal lights along the New South Wales coast.

The First Order Lens, or optic, was supplied by the famous British firm Chance Brothers and was installed in the lighthouse in 1879. Chance Brothers was a leading glass manufacturer in Birmingham established in 1824, responsible for the Crystal Palace in 1851 and the glass faces for the Westminster Clock Tower/Big Ben. They manufactured lights and apparatus for hundreds of lighthouses across the world. The glass manufacturing process required a series of complex machining and polishing processes. Unfortunately, Chance Brothers’ specialist machines were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War and replacement glass for lighthouse optics can no longer be manufactured anywhere in the world.

The SSILO was the first in New South Wales to operate on kerosene instead of the widely used colza oil, and continued to provide light from kerosene later than any other New South Wales lighthouse, as it was not automated until 1975. Its design was developed from the work of Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a French physicist who pioneered optics, particularly polarised light. He established the use of compound lenses instead of mirrors for lighthouses. The SSILO Fresnel lens is a First Order (the most powerful type) dioptric lens. It has eight panels with prisms of flint glass (often called lead crystal) and each panel has 127 pieces in a gun metal frame. The lens sits on a cast iron pedestal and was set in a bath of mercury to provide frictionless rotation.

When the SSILO technology became redundant, Coffs Harbour City Council took over responsibility for the optic from the Federal Government and it was removed from the lighthouse in two stages between 1975 and 1977, with assistance from a RAAF Chinook helicopter. Vigorous debate took place locally and various plans were put forward. Should it be in the CBD, or by the sea? In a replica lighthouse, a park or a museum? Ultimately, it was installed in 1980 in Coffs’ first museum, then located at 189B Harbour Drive and operated by the Historical Society. Council funded the works – a specially-designed sunken floor area was constructed and engineering staff spent many months sand blasting the frame, cleaning the glass and working out how to fit the SSILO all back together again before carefully craning it into the building before the roof was completed. The museum has since re-located to 215A Harbour Drive due to flooding risk and the original building is hired to local table tennis clubs. A perspex shield has been installed to protect the SSILO and it can be viewed by appointment.

As this short history highlights, key to any consideration of the future location of the SSILO is an understanding of the process of disassembly and reassembly of this priceless glass object. There are two schools of thought on this, one being that it is a highly complex and expensive exercise that should only be undertaken when the final and permanent location of the optic is resolved, as it is likely that it will be too risky and too costly to move again. Costs of $300-$400,000 have been mentioned! This view has been reinforced by the images of the Chinook helicopter removing the SSILO from the island and the knowledge that the pedestal was lifted into its current location by a crane through the roof of the former museum.

The other school of thought is that the disassembly of the optic is a relatively simple process that could be undertaken by a couple of skilled fitters and machinists in a week. Certainly it needs to be remembered that the optic originally came to South Solitary Island as a series of parts in crates, and if it was feasible to haul these to the top of a lighthouse in such a remote and inaccessible location and install it there with 19th century equipment, it must be feasible to take it apart and relocate it in Coffs Harbour in the 21st century! Happily, it is the consultants’ view that disassembly and reassembly of the optic can be undertaken relatively simply. The SSILO can be dismantled into small enough component parts and brought out of the former museum through the doors, thus not necessitating the removal of the roof. Another mystery that was solved during the Management Plan was whether the SSILO still contained mercury. Although the fate of the mercury is unknown, we can confirm that there is no longer any mercury in the cast iron “bath” in the pedestal; it now contains lubricating oil.

The consultants also gave serious consideration to the question of the future location of the SSILO:

“Visiting SSILO allowed (us) to see its huge value to the Coffs Harbour community, both as an object of beauty and as an historical and technological wonder. It is fully understandable why the Council fought so hard to retain ownership of it at the time of its decommissioning from South Solitary Island, and the community pride it has engendered over the 45 years since. More broadly there is a wider national interest from both the maritime history and heritage sectors. It is therefore clear that SSILO’s current location within the non-operational museum should change to overcome the lack of access for the local community and tourists. The opportunity of this project is to create a reimagining and contextualization that allows SSILO to be both fully interpreted and fully appreciated.”

Predictably, there are just as many options and opinions about the future of the SSILO today as there was back in the 1970s when it first came ashore. The consultants considered a number of these, including: continuation of the status quo, 189B Harbour Drive; placement into long term storage; placement into museum storage with guided tours; relocation to the new Cultural and Civic Space; and relocation to a revitalised Jetty Foreshores.

They sought the views of stakeholders including Friends of South Solitary Island Lighthouse (FOSSIL) and the Australian Maritime Authority (AMSA). FOSSIL members contributed many positive ideas and were open to various possibilities but their overall message was clear: SSILO belongs by the sea. On this point the consultants agree, stating that “the optimum position for the long term location of SSILO should be adjacent to the harbour within sight of the sea.

SSILO’s future became clearer in early May 2020 just before the Management Plan was completed when the NSW Government announced Stage 3 of the Coffs Harbour Jetty Foreshore Precinct master plan project. It will surely be the “jewel in the crown” of our beautiful harbour precinct.

Jo Besley, Museum and Gallery Curator

South Solitary Island: Design for Lighthouse, James Barnet – NSW Colonial Architect, 1878. Courtesy of National Archives of Australia, A9568, 1/18/1

South Solitary Island Lighthouse, 1934, courtesy of Coffs Collections at https://coffs.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/46748. Please observe all copyright conditions as shown in Coffs Collections.

Announcing Coffs Collections

Coffs Collections is a new cultural service hosted by the Coffs Harbour City Council to share digital versions of the collections managed by the Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum and the Coffs Harbour Libraries in a single destination website.

Coffs Collections may also be referred to as a discovery service – a system on the web for searching across a wide range of local and remote content and in most cases, immediately providing access to that content. The content can take many forms, so the service provides different viewers to experience it.

Here’s what you can do in Coffs Collections.

Discover and

reveal the artworks

watch the films       

read the documents         

admire the objects 

view the photographs 

find the maps


explore the collections 

revisit the exhibitions

trace the public art   

follow the resources 

excavate the timelines 

The chart can be viewed in two formats, here  https://coffs.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/37392 and here https://coffs.recollect.net.au/nodes/view/59966.  

What happens when we haven’t created a digital version of the item?

You will see the casuarina nut, an artwork in its own right. The casuarina trees appear both on the coast and in the hinterland of the Coffs region. When you click on it, the details of the item will still pop up even when there is no image. We are continuing to add to the service all the time.

Coffs Collections is waiting at coffs.recollect.net.au for you to use – please let us know what you think of it.

“The Packing Case Chair” – Coffs Harbour Regional Museum

Figure 1: The Packing Case Chair at Coffs Harbour Regional Museum, 2020.

While it may have an initial unprepossessing appearance this chair is a uniquely handmade gift from the Fraser family given to their friends the Williams family .  The chair is was made from old kerosene packing cases from the Vacuum Oil Company and Plume Motor Spirits & Kerosene.  It is upholstered in two kinds of floral fabric. It was made by Henry ‘Harry’ Fraser, and was most likely upholstered by his wife, Elizabeth Grant Fraser. The packing case chair was a gift to Ivy Williams (nee Dent), the matriarch of the Williams family, with whom the Frasers first lived upon arriving in the Coffs Harbour area in the early 1920s. It is estimated that the chair dates from around this time.

The Frasers and the Williams lived in an area of Coramba Road that was previously known as ‘Orange Trees’. This site is now home to a plant nursery, but was once largely covered with banana plantations and tomato fields. When the Frasers moved out of the Williams home, they built their own home not far away. The donor remembers them as ‘Uncle and Aunty Fraser’. Ivy Williams kept the chair in her bedroom. When she passed away, the chair was handed down to her daughter Daisie Nelson (nee Williams) who used the chair for sewing and reading – the drawers in the arms were used to hold sewing equipment and magazines were kept under the seat. The chair was subsequently handed down to Daisie’s daughter Jill who donated it to the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum. All three generations of women lived on the same site and used the chair in intimate, quiet spaces of their home.

Domestic furniture made from packing cases and other recycled materials was commonplace in the early 20th century. Though usually associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s, this kind of ‘bush carpentry’ was made in remote locations decades earlier due to the lack of access to furniture makers and the funds to purchase pre-made items. Soldier settlers and people leaving the city for the country were often supported by organisations like the New Settlers League of Australia. The League produced a booklet titled ‘Makeshifts’ that included instructions on how to make furniture from packing cases for every room in the house. A very similar chair design illustrates the cover of the 1925 edition. It is not out of the question that the Frasers may have been aware of this booklet, or that the construction of these objects came from a local, vernacular knowledge passed between neighbours and communities.

Figure 2: Front cover of Makeshifts booklet, 1925

The Makers – The Fraser Family

Henry Murray Fraser, known as Harry, married Elizabeth Grant Fulton in 1915 in Kogarah in Sydney. Harry Fraser was a fitter at the Eveleigh Railway workshops and Elizabeth worked at the Children’s Hospital in Camperdown. Harry left his work at the Railway workshops because of ill health. Subsequently, the Frasers moved to Coffs Harbour in 1921, when Harry went into business with his cousin George King and helped him run a traction engine (a self-propelled steam engine, also known as a road locomotive) in Coffs Harbour [1].

Figure 3: Harry Fraser and George King with their traction engine, Picture Courtesy of Coffs Harbour Regional Museum mus07-3674.

They hauled sawn timber from Mackenzie’s sawmill at Coramba to the jetty at Coffs Harbour. It wasn’t without its hazards:

Figure 4: from The Coffs Harbour Advocate, 8 April 1922

Harry and Elizabeth moved back to Sydney briefly and returned to Coffs Harbour for good in 1924, around the time the chair was built. They lived out at ‘Orange Trees’ and became market gardeners, growing tomatoes and bananas.

A Note on ‘Orange Trees’

In mentions of the Frasers in newspapers, ‘Orange Trees’ is given as their place of residence, as if it were a suburb. According to an old label for the packing case chair in the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum, “Orange Trees is an area centered on the present Total Gardens Nursery, which stretched from Buchanan’s Road to Bennett’s Road.” [2]

Orange Trees is part of a broader area that was selected by a man called Thomas or Tommy Albert. Yeates (1990) makes a note of the origin of the name: “James Marles chose two blocks adjacent to Moller, while Thomas Albert went a mile or so to the west where he tried his luck growing citrus. However, he sold his 160 acres in 1887 when his five-year term for conditional purchase expired, and his stay is now remembered by the naming of Orange Trees Road.”[3]

Museum Volunteer Marie Davey (2012) discovered the following about Albert and his land:

“Aged nineteen, Tommy Albert came south to Coffs Harbour after hearing stories of the good land available to settlers. Choosing a site between the present town of Coffs Harbour and Red Hill, he applied for 160 acres (64.75 hectares) on which he intended growing sugar cane.

However, after assessing the immediate needs of the tiny settlement, he switched to growing corn for the increasing number of bullock teams, and fruit and vegetables for his own use and for the families of the timber cutters. On his selection, Tommy Albert built a dwelling of slabs and invited his fiancée down from Grafton to view her future home. Unfortunately she was not impressed with the house, or the neighbours and quickly returned to Grafton.

Tommy stayed on working his selection with little success because of the roughness of the terrain and the poor quality of the soil. Finally he took outside work for Marles a neighbour, ploughing jobs for James Small at Korora, helping on the survey of Boambee and assisting Eugene Rudder over Red Hill at Coramba.

Tommy stayed on his selection for five years until his term of occupancy ran out. He sold his farm for twenty-five pounds but his labour on the barren soil had not been in vain, as his fruit trees, the only ones in the district, survived and the area became known as Orange Trees.”[4]

Orange Trees is also described in newspapers up until at least the 1950s as a distinct suburb during a load-shedding schedule [5]. At one point, it even had its own tennis team [6].

Figure 5: from The Beacon, 1936, P.62.

The packing case chair is an example of the resourcefulness of new settlers to the Coffs Harbour area. It has a strong connection to  local families, the Frasers, who arrived in the area in the early 1900s, in part to escape poor health associated with industrial city living. It represents a wave of migration to the local area and gives us a sense of the personal, domestic life of people in Coffs Harbour at a time that required a large amount of ‘making do’ by residents.

It is also an example of Australian ‘bush carpentry’ that was common from the early 1900s until the 1950s. It reflects the lack of resources of most new settlers to non-metropolitan areas, and the need to repurpose cheap, readily available material like packing cases into functional and beautiful household furniture. Though living and working on a farm in Coffs Harbour in the early years of the 20th century would have been harsh and hard work, the chair is also a reminder of the desire to have beautiful, personal items in the domestic spaces of these farms. The packing case chair was used and appreciated by three generations of women in personal spaces such as the bedroom, or for more peaceful pastimes like sewing and reading.

The packing case chair is currently on display in the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum.


[1] 2001, ‘Our History’, The Coffs Harbour Advocate, 17 August, p. 11

[2] Written by Terrie Beckhouse, 19 April 2016

[3] Yeates, N. 1990, Coffs Harbour Volume 1: Pre-1880 to 1945, Bananacoast Printers, Coffs Harbour, p. 24

[4] Davey, M. comp. 2012, Historic Sites of Coffs Harbour, Coffs Harbour Regional Museum, Coffs Harbour, p. 3

[5] 1951 ‘Load Shedding Schedule’, Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), 23 November, p. 1, viewed 14 July 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page21531484

[6] Coffs Harbour High School. (N.S.W. :). Beacon Retrieved July 21, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1334997866


Figure 1: The Packing Case Chair at Coffs Harbour Regional Museum, 2020.

Figure 2: New Settlers League, 1925. Makeshifts and other home-made furniture and utensils, front cover, accessed 15 July 2019, <http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/139306> 

Figure 3: First Steam Tractor in Coffs Harbour, circa 1910, photograph, viewed 11 July 2019, <https://coffsharbour.spydus.com/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/ENQ/WPIC/BIBENQ?SETLVL=&BRN=196468>

Figure 4: 1922 ‘Advertising’, Coffs Harbour Advocate (NSW : 1907 – 1942; 1946 – 1954), 8 April, p. 3. , viewed 30 Apr 2019, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article185496585

Figure 5: Coffs Harbour High School. (N.S.W. :), 1936. Beacon, Retrieved July 21, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-1334997866

Research by Nerida Little, Digitisation Collections Officer.
With many thanks to Jill Horton for additional information.

The Original Coffs Harbour Police Station and Court House

The Coffs Harbour Regional Museum is pleased to announce our new exhibit – a 1:25 scale model of the original Coffs Harbour Police Station and Courthouse – our Museum building!  This delicately made model has been a labour of love over the last 18 months by a local craftsman and heritage enthusiast, Don Langley.  It comes complete with miniature people, furniture, lights, animals, and fine detailing that is bound to engage people of all ages who see it.

Don Langley with the model at Coffs Harbour Regional Museum, June, 2020.

The Coffs Harbour Police Station opened in 1906 following “complaints of drunkenness in the street and disorder at dances” (Coffs Coast Advocate, 2001).  The existing Coramba Police Station, established in 1896, was  twelve miles away on horseback and considered too distant to respond to immediate problems in the Coffs Harbour area.  Senior Constable Belson and Constable D.M. Harper were the first men to operate the new police station (Yeates, 1990, p. 107).  In 1907 the building expanded to include the courthouse. It contained a courtroom, a Clerk of Petty Sessions,  a magistrate’s room, offices and living quarters for the policemen, two cells, an exercise yard, a forage room and a two-stall stable.  The building was used in this capacity until 1930 when the Moonee Street Police Station and Courtroom opened (Yeates, 1990, p. 185).

Coffs Harbour Courthouse and Police Station, Coffs Harbour, N.S.W. built in 1905, Photo courtesty of Coffs Harbour Regional Museum mus07-857.

Don Langley has written an account of his experience researching and building the model.  Below is his story:

The title – “Original Coffs Harbour Police Station” is a somewhat misnomer.  According to the records I have been able to access, the Police Station construction begin in 1906 or thereabouts but several times, up to 1920, the building was subject to a number of additions and modification.   What I decided to do was make the scale model as close to its structure at that time (1920).

In the researching process I could find no plans of the original building or the modifications up to 1920.  It appears that severe flooding at one time destroyed a large amount of the Council archives and the plans for the Station may have been victim of those floods.  As a consequence I was unable to ascertain the type of quite a few construction materials and specifications causing a considerable amount of guesswork. 

For instance, what was the external cladding?  Several old photographs of early Coffs Harbour buildings such as the Arts and Crafts building and the original Surf Club headquarters quite clearly indicated that the weatherboards were rough sawn square edge boards.  From the photographs I guessed that the weatherboards may well have been produced using local cedar timber.  The records indicate that the original building was designed by the Government Architect, W.L. Vernon. From my past experience it seemed that such weather boards would have been too “lacking in finer quality” for an architectural designed building and the architect would have specified something better looking.  Thus it seemed to me that the “shiplap”weatherboards on the present building may well have been the original style. 

What would have been the finish to the internal lining boards in the original Courthouse/Police Station?  My guess is that in accord with such buildings that have been preserved to a greater degree than the Coffs Harbour building e.g. Port Macquarie Police Station and Courthouse, the finish to the internal lining was stained and polished timber.  This is how I have displayed it even if the colour may well have been quite different.  Then I considered the internal lining of the residence.  It seemed to me that residences attached to public buildings did not receive the grandiose finishes as the public buildings did.  So my assumption was that the lining boards and general finishes in the residence were painted in bland colours and, whether that was so or not, this is what I have done. 

Other materials were easier to establish.  Corrugated iron roofing was common even in those days and though there may be some conjecture as to whether wooden shingles could have been used corrugated iron seems a more plausible material.  However the original may have been replaced at time of additions and modifications.  Nevertheless shingles could well have been the original roof covering as cedar shingles have been produced from local timber sources for many years and not so long ago I was talking to a district saw-miller who stated he was cutting cedar shingles for a government entity. 

The flooring was/is timber with the prisoner exercise yard being concrete.  Likewise the residence wet areas.  As said original records seem to have disappeared so much of my work was calculated guesswork.  The brick base to the building is accepted as original.  In research I could find no evidence at all that the bricks may have been made locally so I assumed that they were imported, most likely from Grafton.

The Prison Lock-Up Cells

Though the few plans available indicated where they were located on site there was no other information other than that they were portable.  Incredibly I found out that one was still in existence and furthermore was in the locality – in the backyard of the Sawtell Police Station (now not in operation).  I was able to inspect it and take detailed measurements and photographs.  Thus I was able to accurately reconstruct the cells in the model.  I might add that the cells were not made in a joinery shop but appeared to be made at the sawmill where the timber was produced.  One thing is certain they were made robust enough to be transported as well as adequate for prisoner confinement.

Original prison lock-up cell in Sawtell, 2019, photo courtesy of Don Langley.

Prison lock-up cells in model, Coffs Harbour Regional Museum, June 2020.

Brief description of how various linings were produced for the model

General construction:  Floor, walls and roof were made from 5 mm MDF board, it being more stable than plywood and available in larger area sizes that balsa wood though some plywood was used.

Base brickwork:  This was achieved by Googling up panels of brickwork on the internet, selecting the most appropriate and saving it on my PC, then enlarging/reducing the panel to the scale I was using.  I made the individual brick in the panel 9 mm x 3 mm representing 1:25 scale of standard bricks 225 mm x 75 mm in size. Having then achieved this correct scale I reproduced as many panels as I wanted and packed them side by side in rows similar in appearance to a wall of brickwork.  This I took to a commercial printer who was able to produce a continual panel some 4 meters long on heavy paper.  This enabled me to cut the paper to sizes I wanted.  Finally the paper was pasted to plywood base.

Internal wall lining: Basically I used the same principle for the brickwork but I was limited to finding on the internet the exact patterns I required. 

Corrugated iron for the roof: This stumped me for a while.  I tried to find a mould with a stamp to press aluminium foil into corrugations but was not successful.  I could not get a mould to true scale.  Then a friend showed me some corrugated paper which was exactly to scale but needed to be painted.  I was able to find a colour matching weathered corrugated iron.

Flooring:  The flooring was 5 mm x 0.5 mm strips of mahogany which I glued to a plywood base piece by piece.

Weatherboards:  Having established that shiplap profile was the one to use, procuring such timber to scale was impossible.  So I used 5 mm x 1.5 mm strips of Limewood glued to plywood backing and separated by 2 mm x 1 mm strips giving the rebated shiplap profile.  Each 5 mm x 1.5 mm strip and each 2 mm x 1 mm strip was glued individually.

Ground contours:  The base for the building was formed on a flat base and the ground contours were formed by moulding polystyrene sheets to the contours required.

Lighting:  I used small LED lighting strips fixed to the underside of the roof.

Research by Don Langley in accordance with current information.

Make sure you visit the museum to see this wonderful model, you can find out our current opening days and times on the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum website.

Reference List

Coffs Harbour Advocate (2001, 4 September). Our History.

The Coffs Harbour & District Independent Weekly (2003, 6 November). History Under the Hammer.

Langley, Don. (2020) Original Coffs Harbour Police Station.

Yeates, N. (1990). Coffs Harbour: Vol I, Pre-1880 to 1945: Bananacoast Printers.